It is a hard and strange label to carry around: Russia’s richest woman. Elena Baturina, London and Austria-based magnate, recently had her net worth valued at $1.1 billion. Prior to the financial crisis it was closer to $4.2 billion. But after a few hundred million you stop counting anyway. Indeed, you turn to other interests: design, in Baturina’s case.
It is somehow an unlikely choice. Baturina is, on first meeting at least, a formal and formally dressed big desk, to-the-point business type. She talks of her job now as being to inspire her team, “so I’m always putting very challenging tasks to them”, she says. “The first response is always that it’s impossible. But we always manage to achieve it anyway. I think the only way to make a team come alive is to set very high aims.”
She owns hotels and ski resorts and wants to buy more. She made her money in construction, cement and real estate, selling her Inteco business last year. She is the wife of Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow until 2010, when he was sacked amid possibly politically motivated accusations of corruption. She has been at the pointy end of politics too, and notes a concern “that there are no clear rules and regulations in Russia for business to develop. You can follow the rules and somehow still find later that they don’t apply to you”. It is all a long way from the arty/wacky/madcap/creative (delete as applicable) world of design.
But that may be set to change. Indeed, Baturina may well become one of the design world’s major players. She has used some of her fortune — and put some $100 million in the pot — to launch Be Open, a global think-tank and innovation promoter. It aims to bring together the brainpower of heavyweight creatives — Norman Foster and Julian Schnabel among them — through conferences, arts events, classes, mentorship schemes, awards and the good old-fashioned writing of cheques, mostly for people under 30 with bright ideas they don’t know what to do with, who need tuition or cash for prototyping. Among the projects it has looked at so far are sound pollution in London and off-the-grid energy generation in Milan. This year alone it has run projects at Design Miami/Basel, 100% Design and International Milan Design Week. It has, in short, gone in all guns blazing.
“There are plenty of good ideas out there but it’s hard for them to reach masses of people,” Baturina, 49, a factory worker turned entrepreneur, explains. “We live in a very materialistic society and often don’t pay attention to things that don’t bring immediate rewards. Lots of really innovative ideas just get put in a drawer. And for me one of the most valuable or precious things [of my position] is the opportunity to address the right people, those unorthodox thinkers, people who enrich the world, the ones who are most likely to inform our futures, who show us new ways to apply knowledge.”
It is, she half admits, a less obvious form of philanthropy — not saving the impoverished, down-trodden or endangered but helping mostly comfortable, well-educated Westerners. But she talks with some passion about a desire to help the voiceless young whom, she suggests, feel ignored despite having a greater sense of where the world is going than their supposed elders and betters. Not that she feels she must do anything with her money at all.
“I don’t feel any obligation [to use wealth to social ends]. I just do what I like to do,” Baturina says. “My desire is to communicate with interesting people. But my hope is to do something that might change the world for the better. But of course it’s unlikely that anyone has the goal to make the world a worse place and anyone can help make it better — just don’t drop litter for a start. I want to help young people achieve, to invite experts to show them a way of developing a trend they can move on. Lots of ideas can be real today and the more young people see that they can realise their ideas, the more they’ll work on them.
“Each person needs to decide what sort of philanthropy works best for them,” she adds. “What’s more important is that people are encouraged towards philanthropy. It’s a very consumerist world but when people have had enough of that they begin to understand that something else is necessary [for fulfilment]. You can more and more vividly see the destructiveness of consumerism. I was born into a simple working-class family. I wasn’t any princess on a pea so I know how ordinary people live and what they might need. I can’t say I’m as moderate in my needs as I was 30 years ago but I can definitely say that another dress won’t make me happy.”
Backing design, however, might surely result in more dresses in the world, even if they are better dresses. Doesn’t design often feed consumerism? Baturina counters that the idea of design is a broad one — and one that, for Be Open, she would like to expand into less obvious disciplines: hairdressing, she cites by way of an off-the-cuff example. But, while dresses may or may not raise a smile, depending on how many dresses you already have, she is more enthused by supporting innovation that might genuinely improve the human lot. And, being — of this we can be sure — Russia’s only known female billionaire, she has the poke to make it happen.
“Besides, I’m not sure that that label [of Russia’s richest woman] is still true,” Baturina says, perhaps just a little amused by how preposterous it sounds. “Maybe I should declare my wealth and be done with it. I’d rather be judged on successes as a developer than my wealth. But it’s very hard to break free of that kind of image. It’s more productive for me just to get on with my projects. I’m really not a very public person anyway.”